Argentina: Interim Report

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Pumice field near Penon, Argentina

In the bad old days, I used to make judgments about national character based on three days in the capital city and earnest talks with two cab drivers. But now I am older and wiser, and I temper my judgments with modesty and candor.

Thus: The Argentinians are a happy people. They enjoy drinking coffee, eating beef and saying, “You from America? I love Americans.” The government made people disappear a few years ago, but everything OK now, because capitalism. They have a blue-and-white soccer team, and it’s very hard to get baseball scores here.  There are deserts and mountains. Buenos Aires is a very, very large city. There is poverty, sure, but also narrow colorful cobblestone streets, semi-paved sidewalks, and did I mention coffee?

I oversimplify, of course. Also there are empanadas. Many, many empanadas.

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Picnic area carved from salt, Salinas Grande, Argentina

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I didn’t mention wine, because I don’t drink wine. Neither does Tracy. We are like fish stranded in an ocean of air.

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We have only been in two places here so far: The San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and the Puna, which is the high Andean desert in the far northwest of the country. San Telmo is like someone’s dream of a picturesque Latin American neighborhood, with urban necessities — grocery stores, pharmacies, electronics stores — cheek by jowl with urban amenities — internet cafes, eccentric apartments, dark welcoming bars. Tourists, millennials, pensioners; they’re all here, in proportions not clear to me.

The Puna is something else entirely, a vast wilderness of unexpected geologic wonders, immense plains at 11,00 feet, mountains topping out at 17,000 feet — and it’s not even the real Andes. I’ve been all over the American West, and nothing there (except the Grand Canyon) comes close to the splendor of the Puna.

Dotted along the way are mining towns (borax, lithium, copper), both abandoned and not. In between are oases, sudden explosions of green in a brown landscape. There are vicuña roaming the hillsides, along with wild burros, rheas (a kind of ostrich), flamingos, llamas (tame), plus Andean ducks, geese and vultures.

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Yes, flamingos. At 14,00 feet. Yow!

We did a homestay in Antofallita, a village of 30 people nestled in a narrow canyon at the edge of a sea of sand. We walked around at twilight, saying “hola” and “buenos” and waiting for the children to appear. Which they did, shy or bold, staring at us as though we were visitors from another planet.

Which we were. But they trusted us — which, it can be argued, is always humanity’s first mistake.

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Maria and Isobel and friends, Antofallita, Argentina

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Our guide was Joaquin Bergese, a burly former rugby player with an excellent command of English, an encyclopedic knowledge of the Puna, and an easy laugh. We recommend him without reservation.

We spent many hours in the car together, talking or not talking, watching the road unspool to reveal this or that new wonder. On our fourth day together, we discovered a mutual affection for the blues. We spent hours listening to his recording of the 2013 Crossroads Blues Festival, with guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Stevie Winwood and…the list was endless.

They were singing about that train that was coming down the tracks, or asking if we’d ever been mistreated, or pleading with us to shake our moneymakers, and we opened the windows and drove through the desert like we were 16 again, on our first road trip, just happy to be us and there.

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Somewhere, Argentina

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We got back to civilization and, for the first time in five days, I opened up the Twitter machine. My God, I thought, the world has gone mad. Or maybe it was always mad, and I just hadn’t noticed. Emails and FBI reports and Anthony fucking Weiner — how is he back? Can I find a hovel somewhere and raise goats and mutter into the sunset?

We’ve been invited to an election viewing party in Buenos Aires. Since it’s right where we’ll be staying, we’ll be there. (Our splendid apartment is run by the lovely and talented Beatrice Murch, and you can stay there too!)  I imagine people will be talking back to the television. I plan to ask them whether cursing is permitted. I won’t be able to stop myself, but it is polite to ask.

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“Revolution is happiness.” Probably not, but one can dream.

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Tonight: Overnight bus to the Ibera wetlands, for bird-watching and drifting. Later on: Patagonia. Next time: How my wife saved my life, and the miracle of the bananas.

Photography by Tracy Johnston

Long distance help by Michelle Mizera

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31 thoughts on “Argentina: Interim Report

  1. Love that caption: Somewhere, Argentina.

    Wondering if you happened by one of those villages I have heard about where all the inhabitants speak Spanish with a Welsh accent (because they were originally settled by Welsh folk).

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    1. Me thinks that Jon and Tracy are too far north — most of the Welsh landed in Bahia Blanca and populated places like Chubut, Neuquen, Viedma, or just kept going to Patagonia.

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  2. “It won’t be easy, you’ll think it strange
    When I try to explain how I feel
    That I still need your love after all that I’ve done”

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  3. But they trusted us — which, it can be argued, is always humanity’s first mistake. But there are girls and goats and who needs trust? Thanks for the trip to Argentina, Jon! Cj

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  4. Sounds like when you do a place, that place is really done. Beautiful! So the drama promised (tease) will be awaited with baited breath.

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  5. Jon & Tracy, you’ve done a bang-up job with the postcatd from Argentina! Thank you.

    Please do wallow in being away from the crazy election. Since I vote by mail, I am done and Hillary is my president.

    Warm thoughts, Diana from Vancouver, WA, previously from SF

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  6. Thanks for the reminder that there is life outside of this election vortex of hell!
    One small note: I would translate that graffiti as “the revolution of happiness,” not “revolution is happiness.” Not sure if it would be correct, not being familiar with any potential quirks of Argentinian Spanish, but I like it better that way…

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  7. I for one am in love with you although no threat to Tracy! Your writing fills me with delight, distress, awe and increased awareness, Jon

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  8. The folks here like your travel tales.
    All it took was a small “laptop” computer or tablet, a massive global infrastructure loosely referred to as “The Internet’, and talents such as yours (plural).
    You have my vote and if I could vote twice for you, why not?!

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  9. OH yummy! It’s all yummy! I want to do what you’re doing. Especially since we may be experiencing the end-of-days here in the bad old U.S. Of A. In this first week of November 2016

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  10. First, the Cubs won. You’re in just the area of Argentina I’ve always wanted to visit! I learned about the northwest from my parents, intrepid travelers, who spent a couple weeks around Salta and Juyjuy (what’s not to like about that last name, eh?), although I’m not sure they made it to the Puna. I can see the two of you dressed in a dark red poncho with black stripes, you’re newest fashion statement.

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  11. OK, the country survived Buchanan and Tyler for Christ’s sake. In my lifetime we have survived LBJ and Nixon back to back and Saint Ronald Fucking Reagan. That said, maybe it’s time for a coup.

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      1. Too true, mm. Too true. And now for something entirely different a joke I stole from Harvey Milk. This ocean liner was going across the ocean and it sank. And there was one little piece of wood floating and three people swam to it and they realized only one person could hold on to it. So they had a little debate about which was the person. It so happened that the three people were the Pope, the President, and Mayor Daley. The Pope said he was titular head of one of the greatest religions of the world and he was spiritual adviser to many, many millions and he went on and pontificated and they thought it was a good argument. Then the President said he was leader of the largest and most powerful nation of the world. What takes place in this country affects the whole world and they thought that was a good argument. And Mayor Daley said he was mayor of the backbone of the Untied States and what took place in Chicago affected the world, and what took place in the archdiocese of Chicago affected Catholicism. And they thought that was a good argument. So they did it the democratic way and voted. And Daley won, seven to two.

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  12. Sadly, no. That said I like it. Thanks for close reading. BTW, do you remember the Untied Way that Jon used to promulgate annually? Brilliant.

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